A few years ago, a friend introduced me to the wonders of Audible. After a lifetime during which undiagnosed dyslexia led me to shun reading as an unpleasant chore, I now revel in the wonders of literature. I listen to all sort of books – fiction, history, biography, memoir – and have discovered that books are so much more than diversions from the turmoil of living. Books provide peepholes through which I better understand myself by sharing the infinitely varied world views and experiences of countless authors. And the entertainment derived from a well-read novel performed by a gifted actor is a true joy. (Listen for example to Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Remains of the Day” read by Nicholas Guy Smith).
My current listen is “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig. This is an existential meditation on the limitless possible directions that one life can take and the consequences of the choices a person makes in every single moment of every single day. The protagonist of the story is Nora Seed who, as a student of philosophy, developed an affinity for the thought and writings of Henry David Thoreau. His musings on life are a recurrent theme in the novel. One that is repeated several times in the book is the quote from “Walden,” Thoreau’s own meditation on the meaning of life. There Thoreau wrote:
I have learned that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.”
This quote struck a resonant chord in me as those are the very words that captured the mood I experienced in 2003 when I made a decision to forego my active practice as a trial attorney to enroll at the North Bennet Street School to learn the craft of violin making. From day one, I had recorded my day-to-day experiences of that transition in a journal. The Thoreau quotation appears at page 3 of my journal.
Today, Haig’s novel delivered another quote from Thoreau which was not previously known to me. He had said that “all good things are wild and free.” Well, it turns out that this is not a mere quotation but is also the title of a short book derived from a lecture delivered by Thoreau on multiple occasions. The actual title of the lecture was, aptly enough to the theme of my own writing here, “Walking.” Here is the abstract from the fly leaf of the bound edition of the lecture available from Amazon:
Henry David Thoreau tells us that ‘all good things are wild and free.’
These words are found in his lecture “Walking,” which he delivered numerous times, beginning in 1851. The connection between wildness and freedom is seen throughout Thoreau’s writing. To him, the good life required balancing the civilized and the wild, and his idea of nature informs his idea of liberty.
For Thoreau, the wild holds numerous individual and social benefits. It is a place where a person can discover and renew oneself. It is a place that allows for experimentation. It is a place that can bring radical regeneration or even a restructuring of society. Thoreau’s life in the Walden Woods, though he was somewhat isolated, was a kind of social experiment that he conducted on himself. Its goal was personal as well as social regeneration.
Thoreau’s views of wildness and freedom underlie his original and relevant libertarian philosophy. It is individualist and social. It is grounded in an understanding of nature and a desire to or figure out one’s place within it. Thoreau’s belief in acting on principles also gave him a practical attitude toward political violence and helped him make a persuasive case for peaceful revolution.
Originally given as part of a lecture in 1851, ‘Walking’ was later published posthumously as an essay in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862. Now being a chief text in the environmental movement, Thoreau’s “Walking” places man not separate from Nature and Wildness but within it and lyrically describes the ever beckoning call that draws us to explore and find ourselves lost in the beauty of the forests, rivers, and fields.
Now there is a lofty formula to inform Dennis’ and Michael’s excellent English adventure!